Explainer

China’s Social Media Explosion

Now that all the major U.S. platforms have left the country, what does the world’s largest social media market look like?

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
A Chinese customer uses her mobile to scan a QR code while paying with the WeChat app at a local market in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2020.
A Chinese customer uses her mobile to scan a QR code while paying with the WeChat app at a local market in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2020. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

When LinkedIn, the last major U.S. social media platform to operate in China, announced last month that it was leaving the country, its departure was seen as the final rupture between U.S. and Chinese social networks. 

But for the majority of social media users in China, LinkedIn’s closure wasn’t a huge loss. During the company’s decade-long stint in the country, it struggled to build a loyal following, at least in part because Chinese users had a wealth of other options. For years, Beijing has been sealing off its digital sphere—reflected in its censorship of Facebook and Twitter—and cultivating what has become a vast, dynamic social media ecosystem.

U.S.-China relations are increasingly framed in terms of geopolitical competition, and discussions of Chinese social media are often tethered to politics as a result. But researchers say this is only one side of the story, one that fails to account for the innovation prevalent in Chinese social media. Today, social media is a space where Chinese citizens navigate constantly changing regulations—and censorship—to discuss everything from Squid Game to toxic work culture

When LinkedIn, the last major U.S. social media platform to operate in China, announced last month that it was leaving the country, its departure was seen as the final rupture between U.S. and Chinese social networks. 

But for the majority of social media users in China, LinkedIn’s closure wasn’t a huge loss. During the company’s decade-long stint in the country, it struggled to build a loyal following, at least in part because Chinese users had a wealth of other options. For years, Beijing has been sealing off its digital sphere—reflected in its censorship of Facebook and Twitter—and cultivating what has become a vast, dynamic social media ecosystem.

U.S.-China relations are increasingly framed in terms of geopolitical competition, and discussions of Chinese social media are often tethered to politics as a result. But researchers say this is only one side of the story, one that fails to account for the innovation prevalent in Chinese social media. Today, social media is a space where Chinese citizens navigate constantly changing regulations—and censorship—to discuss everything from Squid Game to toxic work culture

“I don’t think most people have anything like an accurate, fully realized perception of what daily life in China is,” said Jeremy Daum, a senior research scholar at the Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. “We tend to have a lot of fantasies about what’s going on there.”

China is home to the world’s largest social media market, drawing in an estimated 927 million users in 2020. The landscape has undergone dramatic changes in the past few years. At one point, it might have been easy to match each Chinese-born social media app to a Western counterpart. Such comparisons aren’t always possible anymore, as Chinese platforms have evolved in ways that have enabled them to leap ahead of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 “In China, social media is deeply and fundamentally integrated with many other platforms, be that payment or food delivery or banking [or] navigating the city,” said Silvia Lindtner, a professor at the University of Michigan.

This transformation includes the birth of so-called super apps, one-stop platforms that allow users to easily partake in multiple activities—shopping, texting, transferring payments, and booking flights, to name a few—without having to switch apps. 

Take WeChat, China’s massive messaging platform with more than a billion monthly users. WeChat is owned by Tencent, a $69 billion Chinese conglomerate that also has a stake in major Hollywood blockbusters and popular video games. While technically a messaging service, its offerings have become almost all-encompassing. In the WeChat world, users can also take out loans, make purchases at the grocery store, shop online, arrange food delivery, call ride-hailing services, and book flights. “It evolved to be very innovative and encapsulating kind of everything you would ever need to do,” said Cara Wallis, a professor at Texas A&M University. 

“WeChat is used for everything. It’s more than a communications app. It’s a payments app. It’s a news app. It’s everything,” Daum said. “It’s become its own sort of internet. It’s a little ecosystem of its own. … There isn’t an equivalent to that in the U.S.”

The WeChat ecosystem is one pillar of a vast social media architecture. Looking for a date? You have at least nine options. Try Tantan, Momo, or several other dating apps, some of which offer livestreaming services to better assess potential partners. (Popular international options such as Tinder can only be accessed in China via a virtual private network.) 

For the aimless scroller, there is Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, or Douyin, an addictive short-video app that preceded TikTok, its Western counterpart. Although both TikTok and Douyin are owned by ByteDance, a Chinese developer, Douyin is the more technologically advanced option, embedding special e-commerce features that allow users to immediately purchase products, book hotel rooms, and virtually tour places after first seeing them in videos. The livestreaming industry has also taken off across China to an unmatched degree, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in to streams in search of intimacy and connection. 

These platforms have been the target of increasingly harsh restrictions, part of Beijing’s ongoing push to shape behavior and social norms to an intrusive level of detail. Censorship was once slow and clumsy on Chinese social media, and back in the late 2000s, Weibo, in particular, was seen as the harbinger of a more open media. Corrupt or abusive officials were often exposed in videos posted on Weibo and sometimes punished as a result.

But that rapidly changed as the authorities adapted and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) put greater emphasis on ideological warfare and the blocking of Western ideas. A crackdown on the “Big Vs,” the Weibo equivalent of blue-tick accounts on Twitter, in 2013 effectively killed Weibo debate. When some of that political discussion shifted to private groups on WeChat, the government targeted them in 2017, holding organizers responsible for any politically deviant speech in the group.

Now, mocking CCP war heroes on social media, for instance, can land posters in prison—and it’s not just political content that is controlled. Over the past few years, regulations have steadily encroached into the personal sphere, censoring seemingly harmless topics. Users hoping to wind down with some ASMR on in the background or eager to watch a mukbang, a type of food-gorging video popularized in South Korea, may be out of luck. Both are seen as inappropriate, vulgar fetish subjects and have been banned. Livestreaming has also been a constant target of government crackdowns since becoming popular in 2014, with recent restrictions even dictating how influencers can dress and speak.

As Beijing continues to tighten its grip, these rules are constantly evolving. Social media platforms are often made the arbiters of these shifting regulations, creating a stark environment that fuels self-censorship and shapes how people navigate public conversations. In regulating content, apps often must dedicate hefty amounts of money—and labor—to monitor users’ behavior. In 2020, ByteDance employed an estimated 20,000 moderators to censor posts. 

“You’re never quite certain of the exact rules. They change, they shift. What might be OK today is not OK tomorrow,” Lindtner said. “There’s this constant push and pull where people are kind of testing out how far they can go.” 

Privacy is also a hot topic in China, although regulations are applied differently—and not everybody has to abide by the same rules. Just as Facebook has come under fire for its privacy rules and facilitating misinformation, Chinese platforms also faced scrutiny as they expanded and became increasingly monopolistic.

Under China’s new personal information protection law, users are now theoretically afforded greater protections from tech companies. As one of the world’s more stringent pieces of legislation, companies face rigid restrictions in the information they can collect and share—although it’s uncertain how strictly these laws will be applied in practice. 

The new legislation, effective in November, “takes great steps to protect personal information in ways that it wasn’t before,” said Daum, who noted that Chinese corporations are now comparatively more limited in what they can do in terms of collecting personal information.

The same rules, of course, don’t apply to government authorities. 

“Privacy, it’s almost like it gets turned on its head in China. In the U.S., almost all of our law, including our Constitution, is about limiting government power,” Daum said. “In China, it’s sort of flipped on its head.”

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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